History and Remembering

If the trip just past had a theme, albeit inadvertent, it would be how history is remembered. Poland, the Czech Republic, and Austria, and Vienna, all have quite different “takes” on the same past events, and are twitchy about the twentieth century, for different reasons.

Houses on the main square in Wroclaw, Poland. Author Photo.

Poland was a mighty nation, the bulwark and defense of Christendom, until it was betrayed and divided, disappearing from the map but not from cultural and spiritual existence. According to the Polish government, Poles did not participate in the Holocaust and it is against the law to make such claims. (Specifically the Polish government and groups of Poles. Individuals might have collaborated, but that’s different.) Poland knows who it is, and what it means to be Polish.

The Czechs were a proud kingdom that saw glory days under Emperor Charles IV, then had the Hussite Wars under Sigismund of Luxembourg that prefigured the Reformation by 100 years. They were not exactly victims, but resented being under the control of the Habsburgs and other imported nobles. They endured the 20th century, and are doing quite well, or so it seems on the surface. The Czechs are proud of their history and culture, and enjoy sharing it, but I’m not so sure about their core. Being anti-church/anti-clerical was how some Bohemians in particular defined themselves, as compared to the CATHOLIC!!!!! Habsburgs. That, combined with their history of religious wars (they got a century’s head start on everyone else in the Christian v. Christian version) seems to have left them without observed religion as part of their culture identity (unlike Poland.)

Austria… It really depends on where you are and what you are looking back to. Vienna, as I’ve mentioned, feels split between being a modern capital and the great city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Between 10:00 AM and about 6:30 PM it feels like being in a crowded mall full of people wielding selfie-sticks and moving in herds. Land-o-Goshen, I thought it was a mess four years ago? Yipes! Kohlmarkt leading to Michaelerplatz ( the entry to the Hofburg palace complex from the old-city side) was a solid mass of tourists. The Hofburg ditto. Even the library was nearly overrun by people zooming in, taking pictures, then zooming out.

Outside of Vienna people focus on different things. Salzburg is Mozart and The Sound of Music. Innsbruck is hunting, hiking, and Emperor Maximilian II and others, more medieval and distant from the chaos of Vienna. Upper Austria, Styria, Carinthia, the Burgenland, each inclines more towards different parts of the Middle Ages, Early Modern, and pre WWII periods, and have a more distinctive identity than do the bigger cities. They are Catholic, and that is the official religion, and have started getting more serious about that.

Poland is overrun with kids. Babies, toddlers, school-aged, teens, it is a young country. You trip over kids constantly, you hear them, and it feels good to see them (or see over them, as the case may be). The churches were busy daily, and not just with tourists taking photos of the church or of themselves. The Czechs also had a goodly number of kids running around, but not as many as in Poland.

Vienna… has teens but not children. That is in part because the old city is very expensive, and not really kid-raising friendly. I did see children in the parks, and otherwise getting around, but not nearly as many as in Poland.

How these different places remembered what and what they weighted in their past as worthy of celebration and commemoration are interesting. I’ll have a lot more on that later, once I get my thoughts sorted out.

Overall it was a very good trip, 98 degree F heat notwithstanding. I learned a great deal, relaxed a lot, and saw beautiful countryside. And ate lots of good, heavy, Central European food.


8 thoughts on “History and Remembering

  1. FYI, there is widespread* agreement among Jews that the Polish government poured oil on the fires with that law. Difficult and painful as it is to talk about Poland and the Holocaust, making it illegal to talk about is worse.

    *but not universal, because Jewish people.

    • I kept my mouth shut, listened a lot to the historian and guides, and did my best to read the museum displays as well as what we were told by guides. It was… interesting. I suspect the Polish government fears being forced to pay reparations to the few remaining Polish Holocaust survivors, or to their estates, among other things. There are some interesting undercurrents that I sort of sensed but didn’t have enough language or knowledge to really suss out.

  2. How did they deal with the extreme heat? I’ve heard that Central Europeans consider 65 degrees F hot, and that they have no air conditioning.

    • They eat a lot of ice cream, and there are public fountains that people can splash in, plus the cities set up misters and open taps for the kids to play in. People do everything they need to early, then if possible rest in the afternoon, and activity picks up in the evenings.

  3. Yep, DEFINITELY different cultures, and hanging on to what they have for dear life! My memory of Innsbruck is the White Horse (Weisses Rössl), just down from the Golden Roof.

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